The origins of Grandma, Giles' most famous character
Colour cartoon: Grandma holding a empty box labelled 'turkey' looking suspiciously at Butch the dog who sleeps near feathers
©Express Syndication Ltd. All rights reserved.

GA5681, Artwork for 1984 Express Christmas card, Ronald Carl Giles, Express Newspapers Ltd (1984)

Grandma's creation

Giles gave Grandma his own surname, and it is from “Grandma Giles” that we know the name of the whole family. Giles liked to claim that she was an amalgam of his own Grandma Giles, and his maternal grandmother, Nanny Clarke. Grandma, he claimed, “represents all my grandmas, who were strictly the bull's-eyes-and-embrocation variety.” But this explanation does not bear scrutiny. Grandma Giles was far too respectable to be a model for his cartoon character, for Giles confessed that she “was a church-going lady and didn’t drink”. Nanny Clarke was rather more extrovert, but was simply too motherly to have been the model for Grandma.

The truth is that Grandma was an amalgam of two elderly women, but they were both from Giles’ own cartoons. The first was a cheeky figure in a black dress, who had flowers or a bird on her hat, and appeared in Giles’ cartoons long before he joined the Sunday Express. This figure has been identified in drawings which Giles did for Reynolds News, Our Time, and the monthly AEU Journal. The second figure was a far angrier women whom Giles started drawing in the Daily Express in 1947 as the grandma of his Family. It was this figure who appeared in “The Giles Family Tree” of 1951, and who seemed to be borrowed from Charles Addams’ cartoons of his creepy family in the New Yorker. On one occasion she even carried a shotgun.

 The final “Grandma Giles” was a combination of these two characters, with a little of Giles’ horseracing background thrown in. According to Giles, Grandma’s conversation covered ailments, horse-racing, and “little else”. The first definitive Grandma cartoon has been traced to the Daily Express of 16 March 1950, where she is shown sitting with auntie Vera watching racehorses training through a powerful telescope. “Spying?”, she says to an irate owner who has challenged her: “You'd do some spying if you'd lost your old-age pension every week during the steeplechase season.”  

A close up of Grandma's stern face
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GAPO0025, Window poster 'Laugh with Giles every Sunday', Beaverbrook Newspapers Limited (undated)

Was Grandma in fact Giles himself?

Giles was very fond of Grandma. “From my point of view she’s the perfect instrument for getting away with murder”, he confessed: “I can say what I like and, as long as I put the words in her mouth, the chances are I’ll get away with it.” In Giles’ cartoons Grandma thus came to embrace every form of extreme opinion, from fervent Royalism to revolutionary socialism - she even had a portrait of Lenin on her bedroom wall. A strict disciplinarian, she not only supported hanging, but also, it seems, beheading and flogging. As Giles explained, she could be very aggressive and “violence, perhaps, is her keynote.”

But was she more than a useful mouthpiece? In 1992 Giles’ biographer, Peter Tory, felt that “perhaps, unconsciously, Carl based Grandma on himself”: “At his grumpiest and most difficult he is certainly closer to her than he is to any of his other characters. Certainly, when his mouth takes a down-turn and his glasses angrily reflect the light and his short white hair appears to bristle with irritation, all you would need to add would be a black, neck-high frock, a handbag and an umbrella and you would have Grandma.”

The growing physical resemblance was certainly noticed by his friends, and Giles himself admitted to being “like Grandma’s brother, only worse.” They certainly shared many characteristics, such as a deep hatred of traffic wardens and other petty officials, and on one occasion Giles drew a cartoon for a friend which showed himself looking in the shaving mirror, with Grandma looking back. But this is to miss the essential fact of Giles’ cartooning; that he put something of himself into every character that he drew.  

A comparison of a photograph of Giles in the snow, and an close up of Grandma's face
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L: GAPH00136: Black and white photo of Giles in the snow at Hillbrow Farm holding packaged artwork being collected by helicopter, 1987.
R: GAPA0004: Front cover of ‘Sunday Express Magazine’ advertising article ‘Giles: The man who gave birth to Grandma’, published by Sunday Express, 16 Feb 1986.  

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